"When One Is Always Looking out for a Poem, the World Begins to Speak" Mohineet Kaur Boparai on the Craft and Mysticism of Poetry
India's Rising Star: Interview published in Zymbol Magazine
Zymbol: You have said about “Man Eater at Our Table” that the poem stirs the inhibitions and insecurities in my mind about my subalternity in several situations and at a larger scale my vulnerability as a human on a Darwinian competitive earth, where one is attacked not only outside one’s comfort zone but within one’s own home. That sounds like there is a political edge to it. Will it be fair to say that “Man Eater” is a reaction to attack on a local scale as a woman in a literary industry that continues to be male dominated? Or do you believe there are global implications to subalternity and competition?
Mohineet: Being vulnerable and being driven to some form of inability to act in affirmation with one’s subjectivity to some extent spells out my experience of subalternity. Poetry is for me affirmative action and is beyond the field of inhibition. It is not a transcending, counter-reaction or an act of desperation. Rather, it is an action complete in itself, replete with a distinct sensibility and thought (that may be clear or unclear, conscious or unconscious). Even after the poetic act, subalternity resides in my existence. Poetry is only like a quantum leap out of my body. The electrons of subalternity suddenly step out of my being in space and time and enter the page, computer screen or my finger tips. They are, however, at two places at the same time. All the time that I think subalternity has now flown out through my poems, it is still very much present in me. This is a form of double existence to our slow human brain. When I talk of my subaltern experience, it is in the wider sense of being a human or a woman. As a human, the constant struggle with nature, my environment and the malice of my body, the constant learning of survival and the endless encounter with failing to survive make me get a taste of what subalternity means for those who exist at the lowest levels of society. As a female I feel powerless in another way, in a much stronger way, in the form of cultural constraints and the culturally conditioned role playing. I find myself outside this attitude and want to establish my own, and not merely counter roles. Women take on patriarchal roles and consider them almost universal. Some form of patriarchal ideology and an ingrained inferiority is at work here. I find myself in double trouble as a woman who thinks differently from both men and women who have internalized patriarchal values. There is no fitting in and an endless uncertain space that I must traverse as a human being different from anyone else. Ordinarily speaking, the solidarity one feels with women and other humans comes from the similarity of our experiences and the collective experience of being a subaltern. For me, the very act of being different from everyone else constructs bonds of solidarity because in viewing my difference I also view that everyone else is different too and hence they must be respected for it. Ultimate difference seals our bond because it makes us all the same. For me sameness ends solidarity because it is superficial and hence short-lived. The idea of solidarity can only exist in the consideration and acceptance of difference.
Zymbol How has your academic interest in subalternity and literature affected your choices as a poet? Do you often address social issues in your poetry or do you find your work to be more personal? Do you consider yourself a cultural ambassador for Indian literature in your international publications?
Mohineet: Subalternity is over-apparent in the landscape in India and hence is not apparent. It is as if too much of it makes it invisible. Being a part of the subaltern world, there are, nevertheless times when one actually sees the subaltern from a distance and speaks about her or for her and in this sense gives her a new garb. The body, however, disappears from the table before one can dissect it. Or it is too dissected already and one does not want to put another knife to it. The subaltern is in a zone that is far from being comfortable. When one exits one’s comfort zone (which is initially the womb), one is bombarded with questions that must be answered. These may be about what undermines one in life; what is the meaning of these events? How to come out of one’s subaltern status and prevent the undermining events from occurring again? Some of my poems are initiated by these questions and the larger question, “what is life?”
Subalternity resides in a pallid space, in what is discoloured for us or we are colorblind to it. Subalternity is difficult to speak about because for the subaltern the answers to it are evasive. It is something that we as humans cannot include in our personal framework of justice. This jostling with life at the mental level is like a Big Bang theory that merely simplifies but does not answer. Hence there is an endless theorizing; the theories of oppression can momentarily satisfy us, but in the long run, we must look for more answers. Oppression initiates a process that goes on till infinity. Agency is never final and must be continually recreated and reestablished. The trauma of oppression changes one forever and there is no turning back. Oppression is at one level as constriction of voice and even when the subaltern becomes an agent, her voice has changed, for better or for worse- we cannot decide. The voice is unfamiliar and the subaltern “cannot speak” as before.
A residue of subalternity resides in me and I am moved towards finding a voice in life and as a poet. The subaltern does figure in some of my poems, but my poetry is more about the miniscule in life, and the experiences of different things and beings, in a complex world that however, seems simple as we go about our routine lives. My work is not personal in the traditional sense of the word, though I love to write poems on love and other personal things and events. My third book, Lives of My Love (2012), was largely personal, but even in these poems the metaphysical thought does enter and sometimes even becomes ontological. Thus, even the personal moment in my poetry has a strain of philosophy entering the unconscious of the poem. Poetry then operates at several levels. There is never a clear demarcation between social issues, the personal and philosophical because they coexist in my mind and are not clearly demarcated.
My poetry might have qualities that make it closer to the style of Indian literature than American or British but it is not limitedly Indian. Both American and British literature have had a great influence on my writing because I grew up reading and still read English and American literature. My American publisher told me that my poetry has a sensibility that is more soulful and balanced and carries a sense of wisdom, than American poetry usually does. In one sense, then, I might be carrying the burden of Indian literature as a literary ambassador. I enjoy the feeling that I am representing India in my international publications, but I cannot say that I have been only molded as a poet by being an Indian. The Indian sensibility does come in, but so does the global. There is something in poetry that makes it transcendental and not limited. The very moment of its production is free and is not limited to a cultural expression. Someone who writes novels based in India can more readily become a literary and cultural ambassador than a poet because the cultural effect even if present in poetry is ultimately diminished in its universal voice. I speak from a place, nevertheless; I am sitting here and writing and I cannot just say that I am nowhere or that I am everywhere when I write. And this here, where I sit is what comes into my poetry. How I see this place can be affected by what I know of other places and how I juxtapose the global with the national. In the process, the place India has been changed. Since India is culturally a sprawled country, even as an Indian ambassador, there are several sub ambassadors I can consider myself to be. Indian literature is a complex formation that has several sub-formations over time and space. Historically and spatially speaking, there is no single Indian literature, but Indian literatures. To unify these under one head is impossible and to gain from all its forms is impossible too, because it is written in several languages. This deters a tight theorizing of Indian literature. This is where comparative literature departments come in. Thus, I am only a part ambassador because the very definition of Indian literature is ambiguous.
Zymbol: In the states, poetry journals are not what the average person buys at her local bookstore. But, even though poetry is not mainstream, there is a very active literary industry and a proliferation of publications, conferences and readings. It can be a cliquey and exclusive scene. What is the poetry scene like in India?
Mohineet: Poetry is not what the average booklover will read in India and therefore the bookstores that are usually overflowing with prose, particularly novels, have a handful of poetry books. The literary industry on the whole isn’t very active in India for poetry. There are a few well acclaimed poets writing in English like Jayanta Mahapatra, Arundhati Subramaniyam, Jeet Thayil, Keki N. Daruwalla and Adil Jussawalla etc. There are I believe many more poets writing in the English language but they are backgrounded into oblivion and never make it to the view of the literary public because of the dearth of opportunities to learn, publish or be recognized. There are few poetry readings and there is hardly the opportunity to be exposed to the actual poet. Also, there isn’t any university that I know of in India where creative writing courses are offered. On the whole, the very focus of culture is on other art forms, like music, dance or films that are more performative. The poet in India is neither an icon nor a celebrity for the larger public that nevertheless sees the poet shrouded in mystery. This is because poetry remains less talked of and less acknowledged as a form of artistic expression. There is at the same time a reforming of the writing scene than what it was like in only the last decade. With the writing scene being globalized, there are now several journals and publishers both home and abroad which provide an opportunity to Indian poets as never before. The internet keeps one “in touch” with the global literary scene. Also the easy availability of several translations of poetries from around the world provide a range of reading experiences that help in widening one’s poetic sensibilities. That Indian poets read these is another story. There is a wide space in the poetry scene in India where one can fall and keep falling without something to hold on to. The channelizing of one’s poetic ability is tough in such a scene without any solid ideas on how to write well.
Zymbol: On your blog, you highlight quotes by Frida Kahlo. Andre Breton famously said, “The art of Frida Kahlo is like a ribbon around a bomb.” Is this the effect you aspire to when you write? What about Frida draws you in?
Mohineet: The confessional and personal strands of Frida’s painting draw me in as do the unruly images which are her very own. Their everlasting freshness, the coming together of Frida and nature and at the same time her questioning of nature that constrained her motherhood are all bold attempts to come to terms with her incompleteness. In one painting she is a wounded deer. In another she grows roots and stems. What her body puts on is terrible and yet so colorfully portrayed. It is almost like she carries on her pain into her paintings but refuses to let it overcome her vivid sensibility. The pain that ticks on towards its outburst on the canvas is not aesthetically presented but is starkly ugly. There isn’t much of aesthetic representation in her work. Her art is an art for a reason, for representing some deep feelings and attitudes. The depth makes it disruptive of a clear confined idea of life. Her surrealist art tries to shock the public out of their readiness to accept life as it is. It is the very bursting of ideology and provides a counter and closer experience of routine life and at a deeper level the bourgeois culture itself. My poetry, I believe has some form of shock value too and the images I use are for a shattering the mirror effect. It tries to exaggerate the normal and to see it in a new form as being far from normal.
Zymbol: “Man Eater” has the images of the gothic and the grotesque about it. What would you say is the purpose of the grotesque in poetry?
M: Poetry and some form of imagery are inseparable. The influence of poetry depends on how images relate to the voice and ambience of the poem. The form and content in good poetry have a dialectical relation. The form comes from the content and the content comes from the form. They create each other. For instance an alliterated phrase does its work through the image produced by it. Grotesqueness is an exaggeration of images to produce a heightened and sometimes comic effect. Grotesque images are preeminence, also, of the content over the form, because the very intensity of grotesque content makes the form less prominent. It is as though the form is carrying out its work under the covers.
The world we live in is not seen as such to be grotesque, though in reality it is. Grotesqueness of our lived day to day experiences forms a blurry background. It seems to be ordinary and natural, till it is foregrounded by art and regains its shock value. Poetry operates at a certain level of heightened consciousness. There is a certain pleasure in poetry and it’s not merely the pleasure of beauty but the pleasure of discovery, the pleasure of finding something in the image or through the image. Poetry transports us from our terrestrial worlds, as if, into the realm of the aquatic or even the universal. It takes us beyond our limits into new territory and yet that territory may not even be directly inscribed in the poem. Poetry is therefore, endless creation. It is like meiosis. It keeps on disintegrating into parts that in turn become complete wholes. The grotesque is a transporter in poetry and other art forms to the hither to unseen-ness of the world. It unveils the ugly and irrational part of existence. It seeks the unrealistic or even magical and juxtaposes it with ordinariness. It places these two together on the same canvas.
The grotesque in poetry has existed since a long time I guess. It has existed even before it was possible to record it in the written form, perhaps even before the Hindu and Greek mythologies. The Mahabharata and Ramayana feature grotesque action, images and characters. Their very religious power on the masses comes from the magical and inexplicable in these epics. The grotesque actually explains the unexplainable in daily existence. The grotesque and unworldliness of these epics is actually a reason for their credence. There have been several projects to prove that these texts are historically set and their events can be proved scientifically. This can be seen metaphorically as a juxtaposition of facts with the imaginary in the “witches’ cauldron”. There are several examples of grotesqueness, both comic and not so comic in English literature. There have been Shakespeare’s clowns and fools, Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Coleridge’s use of grotesque imagery in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The purpose of grotesqueness has been to unveil some folly, or to draw moral conclusions from the grotesqueness in the narrative. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is replete with grotesqueness, though at a serious level. It can be seen as a move towards the deep-seated and unconscious. The grotesque, thus, also brings out the animalistic in human existence and in this is a move to undo the binaries.
Zymbol: “How You Found Me”, a love poem contains an interesting mix of natural imagery, and technology (oxygen mask, sonar). Were these metaphors an intentional juxtaposition on your part?
Mohineet: This poem sees two worlds in the same frame. It dashes into the space between separation and union. It is about how two people came together and how their union was waiting for them in the background. At the level of the background there is a coming together of two worlds like the two lovers. It is as if a page that must be torn into two neat parts is kept as one. One part of the page has a tree and birds while the other has technological and artificial symbols like ships and an oxygen mask. Binaries are nullified in the process. The bird too, is seen as a part of a series of metaphors and not as a single self. There is a stealing and reclaiming. Distances are bridged in imagery and simultaneously between the lovers as they come together. The nullification of binaries that props up in the poem becomes a structural technique to substantiate the theme of union or unison that is already present even before the union. The union that comes about is superficial because the inner harmony was always already present between the lovers.
Some Thoughts on Poetry
Introduction to the Wind in a Seashell
15 November, 2015
What is This Book? (The Wind in a Seashell)
“A windy seashell/ Murmurs in the sand’s ears/ Slowly the secret”
After shoveling through my poetry to establish a title, reading and re-reading it in order to find a singular connective link between the several poems, I found reflective links. These are the links that emerge when one reflects. They are the general small truths that are most common to me and somehow find their way into my poetry. These are like the links between the shifting rays of the sun (streaming in effortlessly) and the window. The window is an opening that allows sight and wind. It is visual, olfactory and kinesthetic. The window creates reflex, reaction, but also response. One can actually stand at the window and perceive. Sensation is the first effect but perception is a leap that comes thereafter when one has been standing there for some time. The window and the sun are not static and are forever changing. They have a history and future. They both look on and what they look on changes. The shifting and the waning face of a setting sun collaborates with the dark and hidden concreteness of an inward night that readily allows penetration but allows expression to come only in a veiled or camouflaged form. This book’s poetry is a chameleon of sorts—a multi-pigmented being, a cold hibernating organism, clinging to wood and leaf till it is itself no more and changes—a geo-morph and climato-morph. Biology and geography come synched through paint and pigment.
Poetry is like trailing over a magma space where rocks melt into fire that glows unseen—a hidden remnant of the earth’s history—and floats plates that crack like eggs into a shudder. Only, here is birth and in every birth is some unsaid death of what remains unsaid. The poetry in this book captures the essence of what remains in a state of hibernation awaiting a silent eruption in the wispy night—a crater amongst the clouds. It is far from civilization, lone and undiscovered. It is as if hibernating in the far recesses of sensible earth, between the awake and the asleep. My poetry is like this hibernation. It is dreamy, but also a defense mechanism. It dreams and is born in the fire hiding in the winter fog: “I freeze/ Soon after the first dead fog/ Has lit the winter on my pyre.” Here, life erupts in death and vice-versa.
How complex is this process and how overtly spontaneous! There is thought that comes entangled with images and images that come printed on the brain like flashes, like still photographs that can exist only momentarily and one can see these only once. Poetry kills the spontaneous by making it exist in an alternate form. Poetry records the singularity of the moment, its flash, and extends it and exemplifies it in words that torture it into becoming an organism with skin, blood and bones. What kind of an organism is poetry in this book? It is an unleashing of demons—with foot paint—stamping around a city, playing havoc with lives and demolishing mirrored sky-scrapers. And yet it sees nothing but itself reflected everywhere. And yet, it has to leave colored footprints. Not as a stamp that proves that s/he was here but as a fingerprint, a form of individual signature that adds some quirk to this destruction. She wants to say that every demolition is not the same. She wants to reiterate and record what she has seen all along her maniacal tread around the city—her own self. This is an emphasis and not merely an expression. It has a unique wind trapped within that says this name with so many different sounds. It is a thesaurus that has several versions of the truth and several ways of naming that somehow converge even in the act of divergence of meaning because ultimately meaning making involves inclusion as well as exclusion, writing and deletion, and limits.
Poetry becomes an act that seems to overlook limits and assimilates rather than relegating certain ideas to the peripheries and wildernesses. And because of this a poem is never accurate. And because of this it evades definition and bordering impulses. There is open-endedness in a poem, and there is measureless and continuous death. In this anthology there are several poems about poetry towards the end of the second section, “Thought.” No poem is complete and none is all assimilating. They can only point an index finger to mark a territory in the air like a horse in an Ashvamedha ritual but the sun never seems to set, and the horse keeps running endlessly till death by fatigue, or what may be called a block or more poetically a “Swan Song,” “‘Sing these songs,’ it says around my deathbed/ And orders, I leave its branches/ How I wish to wilt into its spectra/ And rise like a cube of sugar dissolving/ In its trunk of yore,/ Forget the forgetful bubbles/ Streaming, now down my eyes/ ‘Wake up,’ it says, itself almost in ordeal/ And an apparition rises.” Apparitions are smoky, hazy entities and time travelers. They know more than us who seem to be travelling as we stand within a singular space, trapped within the trunks of our bodies, insensible of the tempest outside. Poetry taps the pulse of this outside world. It is a signifier of some form of immensity that seems to forever escape through the fist like sand. Poetry is the singular layer of sand that stays stuck to sweat.
This book is assembled in three layers of “Haiku”, “Thought” and “Love,” or correspondingly gravel, sand and humus. The haiku is hard, it bends roots. And yet it allows a different growth by letting water through and filtering it. It gives life but alternatively by storing resources for some other life. The tree wilts in it but farms utilize the water (that it filters), for crop. This water is put to other uses. Haiku utilizes a single image that resonates with multiple sounds. Its echo is far-reaching. It comprises a simple image but is actually complex and has a measureless basin of water lying under it. Above this gravel is a layer of sand. It is thought that provides a base for plantation while the gravel provides the basin. The tree utilizes the basin underneath to grow even in a desert and the sand is what binds the tree to the land before it becomes strong enough to reach the basin underneath. And then the humus—the inveterate beginning of things, oddly coming from death. A plant or animal dies and its remnants make another grow. Love is like the nourishment where images and emotions entwine like nitrogen and carbon—here in verse. My most poignant poems I keep realizing are those that are written around love. It is the topmost layer of sensibility for me. As a writer it is the most accessible imaginative layer. It is ironically close to the surface of my consciousness, given the general understanding that love lies within. And yet, despite the fact that I write more affectively on love than thought, I use the images of unearthing, unraveling and emerging repeatedly in my love poetry, “That wind was butter/ On a stony sky/ Frisky fingers unpacking a gift/ Of dry leaves red at the margins.” Or another poem, “Tonight you open the soles of my feet/ And rise in the capillary tubes of my bones/ The grains of years drawn on them like circles/ You keep rising to the deserts/ And blind silken winds meet/ The woman under your iris.”
Throughout the poetry in this collection that is hypothetically divided as above is an element of mystery, an indentation of the unknown and evasive. Throughout is a tumult that comes from treading on plates that are ultimately molten in their roots and a tree that grows till it finds sunshine and water, stretching both ways, traversing the troposphere and the lithosphere, itself becoming a link between these incomplete spheres, connecting them and cracking them through contemplation and spontaneity.
Mohineet Kaur Boparai 13 November, 2015
A 2014 Poetry Manifesto
The Summer of 2014
The Poem Awake
The poem is a pondering on a hallucinatory image, that is there and at the same time not there. This, keeping in mind, the susceptibility of the vision to be forgotten or, relegated to the unconscious before it can transcend the airy conscious and enter the realm of the tangibility of the page. This vision in the mind that attaches itself almost immediately to language is a strange phenomenon. It is like the apparition that ushers us into Hamlet. There is a straightening of things seeming to begin at its disheveled core that in the end never comes about. This straightening itself carries a sense of oedipal ambivalence, a love/hate for what controls poetry like the unseen patriarch. This is an inverted presence that seems to control from underground. Poetry stems from it, grows up from this root that travels inversely to hide the meanings that manifest themselves in the latent content of the image of poetry. It is this latent content, the maze that forms around the image that gives poetry its soul. It is a revenge on the unknowingness of the world, and the very ambiguity of presence in the vastness of the universe. Is it that every miniscule existence is on a larger level, a largeness in itself? Are the miniscule things only relatively miniscule? Does the burden that the miniscule thing carries of the large universe make it large in the combat? Is the miniscule large in the fact that everything miniscule actually carries the symbolic heaviness of something large? These are open ended questions. They need much thought and heart. In our scientific world that requires reasons, poetry resides in a corner that only sees. Sees perhaps just like an expressionist, in dashes of paint, as a cubist in shapes and lines, through a vintage telescope without automatic settings, or a slide under a microscope that now has movement where earlier there was only a smear or a spot. This seeing is the amazing part of poetry. Everyone is a seer in some way and we all believe that we are seers, creators of our thoughts and actions, even creative witty conversations. In that and more there is some poetry in us all; a little poet tosses and turns in the space between our seeing and thinking and then the thinking that comes almost instantly after seeing ends the poem before it can come to light. This happens to poets too, much more often than they write. A poem comes when the space between seeing and thinking remains vacant over a certain period of time. This vacancy makes one write from the queer saturation that exists within. When one writes a poem, one is filling in the vacancy in the universe, with one’s saturated self. The poem reveals something about the universe in the ongoing process of its creation that was hitherto hidden or existed in a vacancy. Poetry begins as sight and becomes an image but there is no end to the multiplicity of new sights it triggers. And in the end, when the poem has been written the blindness is still there, only a hallucination of light and color had been generated and as soon as the hallucination in the mind is over, the universe is again dark and the next poem comes. The writers’ block is an occupation of the place of vacancy with obviousness. Art is like science in that both begin from this vacancy, the emptiness that confronts us time and again as we go about our ordinary lives in the extraordinariness of our situations. Suddenly this extraordinariness of life comes to sight and one stops. In this stopping poetry is born and science gets rolling. Directions change here, movements begin and newness is born. Creativity, to be, must stop in the middle of things. It must give chance to chance, find something out of the blue and see something as what it is not.
A diminution of a streak of chemical in the bloodstream can quake up the world, shed the veneer of life and make us confront the trembling death walking past us into the dark street. In life too, we feel this confrontation several unwanted times. We see its face and we see ourselves but the encounter is postponed, as if forever. One can see only parts of this face and there can be a conversation that is too obvious, so it does not happen and the mystery remains in the shroud. Poetry comes at this moment as a diversion but leads to the non-obvious direct speech of the poem that must become the reported speech at some point during the readings of it. Poetry is a confrontation with one’s twin and yet the twin is only a fragmented phenomenon that is made into a mystery one wants to approach. Poetry then is an attempt to see the fragments that are outside and yet quite intimate.
What the poem does is like sitting on one’s shadow. One is as close to it as one can be and yet there is no holding it. Poems are evasive in their simple ways. They present themselves and crawl out of their lair at the first call, but will not tell you the formula because there is no formula. Poems are watery, they open windows to the ocean and when one puts one’s face to the water to see, the eyes are already feeling the heaviness of this new world. One pulls out oneself, takes a breath and ushers into the poem again. When the poem has ended it has not actually ended because the window is there and the ocean is there and who knows a star fish might be talking to the sky and we might be missing the conversation.